Joe McKnight was shot dead on Thursday afternoon as the former USC and NFL running back argued with a man at an intersection. The death of a former athlete will always make news, but those who knew and watched McKnight know he was special. Nothing epitomized that more than USC’s final drive at Ohio State on September 13, 2009.
McKnight was always a different kid. Growing up in Louisiana he was touted as one of the greatest high school football products ever from the state. Rather than stay home and play for LSU, McKnight chose to head west to play for Pete Carroll’s juggernaut at USC. The people of Louisiana were not happy, but McKnight had always marched to the beat of his own drum.
As soon as he stepped on campus at USC the inevitable comparisons to reggie Bush began. McKnight had that explosive, game-breaking ability few possess, so it was natural to line the two up next to each other. But during his first two seasons with the Trojans, McKnight struggled through injuries and the weight of expectations. He also had issues with migraines caused by stadium lights. Throw in the bevy of tailbacks and offensive weapons USC had and he struggled to stand out.
As the 2009 season began, McKnight was expected to finally take over as the focal point of USC’s offense. With true freshman Matt Barkley under center and a stout offensive line in front of him, it was time for the junior to shine. His first chance to show what he could do came on national television against Ohio State in Columbus.
That early-season matchup with the Buckeyes was as hyped up as a college football game could get. A then-stadium record crowd of 106,033 screaming Ohio State fans packed The Horseshoe and it was as loud as any game had ever been in Columbus. By the end of the contest those boisterous Buckeyes had been silenced and McKnight was the reason.
When you look back at his stats from that game (16 rushes for 60 yards, 2 catches for 45 yards and no touchdowns) it doesn’t seem like McKnight did much. But with the game on the line and the Trojans backed up in the shadow of their own goal line, he turned in the performance of his career.
With 7:00 remaining in the game and Ohio State leading 15-10, the Buckeyes pinned the Trojans on the 14-yard-line with a punt. On 1st and 10, Barkley was sacked by Devon Torrence for a four-yard loss, then a false start set USC back to its own five-yard line. Staring a 2nd and 19 in the face, the Trojans decided to turn to McKnight, who to that point in the game had just 27 yards on 11 carries, plus one reception for 24 yards. Ohio State’s defense had bottled him up for more than 53 minutes. That was about to change.
Barkley handed McKnight the ball on second down and he promptly ripped off 11 yards, turning a hopeless situation into a manageable 3rd and 8. Once again, the freshman quarterback leaned on his star running back. As he dropped back, McKnight beat linebacker Ross Homan to the inside on an angle route. Barkley hit McKnight in stride, and he took off, gaining 21 yards and a first down. After another Barkley completion got USC into Ohio State territory, McKnight was bottled up on a one-yard run. Two plays later, Barkley gained a first down at the Buckeyes’ 27-yard line with a quarterback sneak.
McKnight took over again after that. He had a four-yard run off the left side, then made a beautiful cut-back on the next play, bedeviling the defense and picking up nine yards to Ohio State’s 14-yard line. After an incomplete pass to Damian Williams, the running back got the ball again and showed all of his gifts. He plowed ahead for eight more yards, using speed, vision and unexpected strength.
The ball was now on the Ohio State six-yard line and the Buckeyes were forced to take a timeout. On the ensuing third down, Barkley snuck the ball for four yards and a new set of downs. After another Ohio State timeout, McKnight gave way to Stafon Johnson, who had become USC’s “closer” at running back. On the next play Johnson walked into the end zone from two yards out, giving the Trojans a 16-15 lead with just 1:05 remaining.
USC was then successful on a two-point conversion on a swing pass to, naturally, Joe McKnight. The score was 18-15 and the crowd was absolutely silent. This raucous band of fans that had been louder than any stadium in the country just six minutes earlier sat in stunned silence.
On what has become known among USC fans as “The Drive,” McKnight carried the ball five times for 33 yards and added a 21-yard reception. From the five-yard line USC had marched 95 yards, and McKnight accounted for 54 of those. He broke the will of a stout Ohio State defense and the spirit of 106,033 Buckeye fans.
After the game much would be made of Matt Barkley’s poise in the face of that crowd and all of that adversity. But those who actually watched the game closely knew McKnight was the reason USC walked out of Columbus with a 18-15 win. That final drive was his masterpiece. Sure he’d compile more yards or score more touchdowns in individual games during his career, but for one drive against a top-flight opponent, in an electric atmosphere, he was the best player on the field.
Regardless of what McKnight did during the rest of his career, he had that night, he had that performance, he had known what it was like to lift his team on his shoulders and earn a win.
For one night he stood on top of the college football world.